New Jersey’s drought taking a toll on fall trout fishing, boating

October 26, 2016 GMT

While the state’s worst drought in 15 years has put the focus on low water levels at drinking water reservoirs, the dearth of rain has also taken a toll on trout fishing, boating, duck hunting and other traditional fall recreational opportunities.

The Ramapo River was so low that volunteers who helped the Division of Fish and Wildlife stock a portion of the river in Oakland with trout this month had a hard time finding spots to release the fish, said Richard Malizia of Hawthorne, conservation chairman of the East Jersey chapter of Trout Unlimited.

“Shallow stream flows tend to concentrate the fish in fewer areas with deeper pockets of water – assuming they can move to those spots at all,” Malizia said. The result – a less appealing challenge for those who prefer fly fishing than using live bait.

Malizia said fish have been so stressed by warmer river temperatures and the corresponding lack of oxygen in the water that catching the fish and releasing them would add further stress that could kill them.


“When conditions get like this, responsible anglers stop fishing,” he said. “Unfortunately some anglers don’t see the big picture – they’re only concerned with filling their stringer,” he said, referring to the line of rope fishermen use to keep their catch alive under water while continuing to fish.

Lisa Barno, chief of freshwater fisheries at the state Division of Fish and Wildlife, said recent cooler nighttime temperatures will help reduce water temperatures and ease the problem of low oxygen for stocked fish. But she said a continuing drought could pose more trouble for native wild trout. This is the start of their breeding and spawning season, and lower stream flows restrict their movement along a river - and the ability to find a mate, Barno said.

Wild trout will lay their eggs in the gravel along stream beds. “Lower stream flows could leave those eggs exposed,” Barno said. “The full impact on wild trout will depend on conditions over the coming months.”

The lower water levels have also affected fall boating on lakes and duck hunting.

Because the water level at Lake Hopatcong in Morris and Sussex counties is lower than normal, “recreational boaters have been forced to take their boats out way ahead of schedule – some even in late September,” said Ed Mackin, president of the Knee Deep Club, a fishing club at Lake Hopatcong. “Traditionally people will keep their boats in at least until now so they can enjoy cruising around the lake to look at fall foliage.” Mackin jokingly conceded that if the drought continues, his fishing group might have to rename itself the Ankle Deep Club.

The lake, formed by a dam, is managed during summer months to maintain a level of 9 feet. Currently the lake level is down to 7.5 feet, according to a United State Geological Survey gauge.


In addition, many of the smaller ponds in the area are drying up or turning to mud, so ducks are congregating in larger numbers in the few areas that still have enough water, including a wooded are at the north end of Lake Hopatcong. That, in turn, has lured larger numbers of duck hunters to the area, ruining the experience for those who have traditionally hunted there.

“A buddy of mine just texted me, wondering why there are so many people on the lake this fall shooting ducks,” Mackin said. “He’s usually alone.”

A few weeks ago Trout Unlimited helped the state stock trout at the Ramapo River in Oakland, where Glen Gray Road crosses the river.

Usually they put a boat in the water to help distribute the fish, but water levels were so low they couldn’t, Malizia said. “Instead we moved the fish in five-gallon buckets and had to look for places with water deep enough to put them,” he said.

While low stream and river flows may have little impact for anglers who use live bait, it reduces the appeal of fly fishing for some. “It takes the fun out of it,” Malizia said. “Nothing moves properly,” he said, referring to the fake flies that anglers attach to their lines to attract fish. The fly’s movement mimics an insect on the water’s surface.

Malizia compared the current “lousy” fishing conditions to skiing on slushy or icy trails. “It’s not nearly what the experience should be,” he said.

The Ramapo River at Pompton Lakes was flowing on Wednesday at 79 percent below the historical average for this time of year. The Passaic River at Little Falls was 96 percent below average. And the flow that exists is largely made up of effluent from upstream sewage treatment plants.

Stream flows have been so low this fall that the state decided not to release fish at some locations that are normally part of the fall stocking program, including portions of Big Flatbrook and the Walkill River, both in Sussex County.

The agency also expanded its fall stocking operations to some areas that had previously only been stocked in winter, including Woodcliff Lake and Speedwell Lake in Morristown, providing anglers several more weeks of warmer weather for trout fishing.

Overall, Fish and Wildlife stocked about 21,000 rainbow trout along with some broodstock in rivers, streams and ponds throughout the state this month.

Much of New England and upstate New York are also experiencing serious drought conditions. New York temporarily closed at least one favorite fishing spot this year along the Salmon River north of Syracuse because of low stream flow.

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